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Ambition and 3D printing: It’s time to print a dam!


In the wake of the pandemic, there has been increased confidence in the 3D printing sector. Many believe that 3D printing—also known as ‘additive manufacturing’—can help solve increasing supply chain problems. Meanwhile, in China, they are thinking a little bigger; why not 3D-print a dam, build it within two years, and eliminate the need for human laborers at the dam site altogether?

Mega 3D-printed structures – no longer just a pipe dream

If it sounds a bit far-fetched, the intention is genuine. Using ideas first proposed in a research paper, Chinese engineers plan to create the world’s largest 3D-printed structure. Officials want to fully automate the unmanned construction of a 590-foot-tall dam on the Tibetan Plateau to build the Yangqu hydropower plant—and, what’s more, they plan to do it completely with robots. The engineers plan on using artificial intelligence (AI) to control unmanned machinery to construct the overall structure.

The paper, published earlier this year in the Journal of Tsinghua University (Science and Technology), laid out the grand plans to build the dam, with the story first appearing in the local South China Morning Post newspaper. Researchers from the State Key Laboratory of Hydroscience and Engineering at Tsinghua University in Beijing say the project for the planned Yellow River dam will eventually provide nearly five billion kilowatt-hours of electricity each year.

The ‘printing process’ will see machinery deliver construction materials to the worksite, with unmanned bulldozers, pavers, and rollers ‘printing’ the dam layer by layer. Sensors on the rollers will keep the AI system informed about the firmness and stability of each of the 3D-printed layers until it reaches 590 feet in height. That is about the same height as the Shasta Dam in California but somewhat shorter than the Hoover Dam’s 726 feet, located near Boulder City in Nevada.

China is the first, but will not be the last

The largest existing 3D-printed structures generally rise about 20 feet tall—including some houses in China and as well as an office building in Dubai—so the exploration of 3D-printed projects is undoubtedly expanding. There are plans for a 1,640-foot-long retention wall in China, while the US Army also has plans for 3D-printed barracks in Texas.

Were the dam project to be a success, the idea of 3D-printed projects being led by an AI system controlling a fleet of robots may lead to even more ambitious AI-controlled, 3D-printed construction projects. There is even the possibility of drones working together to create large 3D-printed structures made of foam or cement. Experiments are already paving the way for a future where swarms of drones help construct high or complex buildings without the need for support scaffolding or large construction machinery.

Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania and Imperial College London have already begun examining how drones could mimic the way insects such as wasps and termites work together to achieve a defined goal. For example, several drones could work together to build cylinders made of insulation foam and special cement, with a third drone using a depth-sensing camera to capture a 3D map of the work in progress, thereby allowing the cooperative drone ‘team’ to adjust construction steps as necessary. 3D-print a dam? That is no longer Tomorrow’s World—it’s well on the way to becoming today’s. How far will your ambition take you?





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